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Middle America, 10 years later


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    Welcome to Cuba, Missouri. David Brancaccio visited the small town 10 years ago when it was first dubbed "Middle America." He recently returned as part of his series Economy 4.0 to see how the town has changed.

    - David Brancaccio/Marketplace

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    The view from Route 66 in Cuba, Missouri.

    - David Brancaccio/Marketplace

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    Cuba Jail, 1908.

    - David Brancaccio/Marketplace

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    Commerce in Cuba. ABC Investments Used Furniture.

    - David Brancaccio/Marketplace

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    Cuban industry No. 1: Paper Products.

    - David Brancaccio/Marketplace

The view from Route 66 in Cuba, Missouri.

Cuban industry No. 1: Paper Products.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: And now for a trip down memory lane to Grover's Corners. O.K., it's not actually the mythical setting for the play "Our Town." Instead we travel to Cuba, Mo., for act two of a different life cycle play.

Ten years ago, correspondent David Brancaccio spent a week in Cuba, a town in the statistical middle of America. Much like his stage predecessors, David visited with high school students. And now he's gone back to catch up with them as part of our series called Economy 4.0.

Our curtain rises, and David is looking back on the year 2000.


David Brancaccio: As it happens, Cuba, Mo., has the same population as Thornton Wilder's fictional Grover's Corners -- about 3,000 people. I wasn't thinking of "Our Town" when I came here a decade ago. Back then, the idea was to see how globalization was playing out in middle America and Cuba, west of St. Louis, was the center, by one U.S. Census measure. One piece of our original coverage was a stop at the high school, as social studies teacher Marilyn Licklider led students through an exercise in economics.

Marilyn Licklider: Does anyone know what productivity is?

Students: What the outcome is, how much you make of it, how much you put out.

A lesson in finding more efficient ways to "manufacture" peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. Listening back 10 years later, I was struck with one section. It was not about grand economic principles, it was something more personal. I asked these high school seniors in December of the year 2000 -- before Enron, before 9/11, before the great collapse of 2008 -- I asked what they thought the future held for them.

Student 1: I'd like to be a doctor in like Washington or Seattle.

Brancaccio: Why so far away?

Student 1: It's pretty up there and I just really like it.

Everyone I asked envisioned their future somewhere else. Ten years ago, at age 17, Niki Breese had this plan.

Niki Breese Hulsey at 17: Nursing in a big city 'cause I guess there's more of a need in bigger cities and they pay more.

To paraphrase Thornton Wilder's play: the sun's now come up 3,650 times. That young woman is 28 and lives in a ranch house at the foot of the water tower that reads "Cuba" in big letters.

Hulsey: I'm a nurse, but in a small city.

Brancaccio: You're in Cuba, Mo.

Hulsey: Made it halfway there.

Niki Breese Hulsey is married with two kids.

Hulsey: Let's see who can be the quietest the longest. Ready go!

Kids: Me! Me! Me!

And there's another child on the way. Niki works at a nursing home, which she says is what she can get with her more entry-level LPN, Licensed Practical Nurse certification. She is back at school to upgrade to Registered Nurse. It's been a busy 10 years.

Hulsey: I didn't expect that it would take so long to get things rolling. And I didn't think that I would go back to college so long after I got my LPN. But I changed my mind so...

Hulsey is keeping up with her finances, but the new degree is costing her because it's more loans and no grants.

Hulsey: The actual grant part, I can't get any of that, I make too much. I still have to work, so that's not going to work for me.

A few blocks away, Allison Caudle was also in the Cuba High class of 2001. It wasn't long before fate threw her a jarring personal finance lesson.

Allison Caudle: I think it was my first year of college, my grandparents handed down an investment to me. We decided to teach me about the stock market then, and I invested and lost, I guess it was right when 9/11 happened.

Brancaccio: Oh man.

Caudle: And then September, October I lost $10,000 immediately. Oh yeah, being a college student, that's a pretty good chunk of money.

Allison studied criminal justice, but a broken arm stopped her FBI plans. She got into banking, first as a teller. A bank trained her as an investment advisor in 2008, just before the bottom fell out of the market. Now she is an insurance agent back in Cuba.

Caudle: I would say that we're probably in more debt than what we should be, but that won't happen again.

Brancaccio: You're going to make sure that stays under control?

Caudle: Oh yes, we have a very positive five-year plan.

Brancaccio: You actually worked out a five-year plan?

Caudle: In my head, yeah. I told my husband about it. This is how it's going to be.

Brancaccio: Is this the first you're hearing about this plan?

Joe: Nah, actually it's not.

Allison and Joe are actually both graduates of Cuba High 2001, even if they didn't date back then.

Caudle: No, I didn't even talk to him. He liked to wear crazy clothes that didn't match. And I got best dressed in high school.

So if Allison was best dressed, who was most destined for big things?

Caudle: I would have to say Mardy Leathers. He will talk your ear off.

I went to see Mardy Leathers, who used to talk about law school but ended up at business school.

Mardy Leathers: I didn't foresee myself back home. You know, I was the first one to say I'm heading out to bigger and better things.

He came back to town to start a truck driver training business with his dad, which is now running strong. When it came to real estate, he read the omens just right.

Mardy Leathers: I've always been kind of a Wall Street Journal junkie. And so I knew it was a great time to sell my house and transition to another one if I was going to. I was lucky enough to be able to do it at the right time -- May of 2008, we closed.

Mardy was just elected county clerk and takes office in a couple of weeks.

Of the 89 students who graduated from Cuba High in 2001, 65 of them entered college. There are no records on how many settled back in their hometown.

Cody Cherry, now Cody Veghey, is one of those who got out, which was part of her original plan. I play her the old radio story where she's pressed for her aspirations.

Cody Veghey in high school: Something to do with marketing or advertising, communications. Not here, there's not a lot you can do with advertising here. Probably go to Chicago, maybe end up there.

She's not there yet. Cody lives two and a half hours away from Cuba in the Missouri town of Bowling Green, also population 3,000. She's now married and has an 18-month-old child. She teaches junior high and coaches volleyball, even as she completes her master's in education.

Brancaccio: When I said "What do you want to do?" 10 years ago, you said marketing or advertising and you mentioned really big cities. What happened to that?

Veghey: The big city didn't work for me. As for as that career path, I could still teach it, I'm just not doing it. So, I could always go back if I wanted to whenever I grow up.

She says she feels lucky to be employed at a time when teaching positions are being cut. Her husband is in the pipeline business, after doing residential construction before that market went slack. They had built a house.

Veghey: You know, we're investing at least. But it's depreciated since we built but everything else has, so it's a little depressing.

Brancaccio: But you probably didn't want to move right away.

Veghey: We had a plan, we were going to be there two years and then build again. My husband, he's in construction anyway, so we wanted to build and sell, build and sell and eventually pay one off. But that is on the back burner for a little bit. We built one and now we're stuck.

Cody's not alone. Census figures show that migration within the U.S. has slowed recently, to the lowest rate in 50 years. Some experts blame the tough real estate market on the theory that people who have trouble selling their houses are unlikely to move. But maybe they can visit. Specifically, what about Cody's old Windy City plan?

Veghey: No I've never even been to Chicago! Why haven't I been there? I'm in Bowling Green, Mo., which is fine, I like it.

Brancaccio: All right, so you're going to get your master's in June, and then July, you're going to somehow get over to Chicago -- you might drive to Chicago from here.

Veghey: Yeah, it's only five hours. I don't know, I'm always going the opposite direction. No, yes, I will.

In small town Missouri, I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace Money.


Vigeland: You can listen to David's original reporting from Cuba and read a blog post about his return visit.

The view from Route 66 in Cuba, Missouri.

Cuban industry No. 1: Paper Products.

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I am glad that Brian Buff has accomplished great things. I also want to say that while he was in grade school and high school, I was accomplishing great things, too. Life runs in cycles, though, Brian, and many people who accomplished great things now are priced out of a job market. It's not that we won't take lower paying jobs---it's that we are passed over because we will want to move on to better things again, when the economy turns around. Don't judge everyone's accomplishments by what you are able to do at a give time in your life. There are different career phases, and when your "down cycle" comes, maybe you will see that it's not always about how hard one is willing to work, what degrees or sterling work history we have, but about how the "buyers" see the "sellers" in a buyer's market. Your comment that the country lacks ambition is insulting to those of us out there working retail at age 60, after losing exceptionally good professional jobs in the last few years, after decades of solid work history and achievement. A little more time on the planet would do you a world of good in terms of perspective.

This story seems to play along the same lines of a depressed nation that I tend not to buy in to. I have worked pretty hard since graduating from a small town high school in 1994, and I have never gone without a job. In fact, during the recent downturn and the one after 9/11, I had several second jobs. I think this country in no way, lacks opportunity, it lacks ambition. I am a divorced and remarried father of four who pays $12,000 a year in child support and managed to work and go to school over the last five years. I now work for a big four accounting firm, andI just found out three days ago that I passed the CPA exam. People can accomplish great things.

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